Literature gets a break in music

Linda Hutcheon articulated, momentarily, the matter of music with literature that I have never been able to settle in my mind. Sections 28-33 talk about the way in which the literature is changed for the opera adaptation of Clarke’s Beatrice Chancy.  She says that the language “was never sacrificed,” that the music “increases the impact of the literary text when performed.”  (28) I do not agree. I am very passionate about music but I have a bias toward words.  Her practical explanations for cuts and changes in the text are believable, however, the literature is shorted, the “power [does] get lost.”  That is, the impact of the text is cut and the burden of impact is shared with the music. So the drama and impact as a whole are not lost, but again, the words lose substance and poetic strength. She gives the comparison of the two and my argument is in the lines:

“I’m perfumed, ruddied/ Carrion. Assassinated./Screams of mucking juncos scrawled/ Over the chapel and my nerves,”

versus

” I’m perfumed, bleeding carrion,/ My eyes weep pus, my womb’s sopping/ With tears; I can hardly walk:  the floors”

In the opera adaptation, the words “bleeding,” and “sopping” are not as impactful as “ruddied” or the image of the “mucking juncos.”   I especially was thrown out by the use of “womb.” It is too literal and “sopping with tears,” is outright cliche.  Still, I’m sure the music picked up the slack.

This has always been my pet peeve, although I haven’t convinced myself of its justification. I certainly do not think that music needs words, I just feel that often the poetry has opportunity to slack off. Think of the mountain of lyrical cliches in love songs, I do not ever expect progress there.

To bring it back to film, I am wondering if there is argument that music is doing the same to adaptations.  Is it picking up the slack for film? Filling in for impact when the film struggles to adapt the impact of the text on screen? Music is arguably auditory poetry and maybe deserves more attention for its role creating impact in adaptations.  Too clarify (maybe), I am struggling with the use of music as an excuse to slacken the writing in songs, operas, films, all of it.  I also realize it may be a necessity.  Maybe rich text with rich music equals mud?

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3 Responses to Literature gets a break in music

  1. Mike Ketive says:

    To play devil’s advocate for a moment: words, in conjunction with lyrics go in tandem, at least in the case that Hutcheon brings forth. When it comes to lyrics to a song, I give them the Shakespearean play treatment: they’re meant to be performed, not read. They’re words on a page with some sort of meaning, but their meaning is fully fleshed out with the music associated with it. Putting mushy love song lyrics to music written in the minor scale (a series of notes that make the song sound negative in nature for those who don’t know) may not work. Having said that, you’re right in saying that the words might take a backseat to the music, but the music also enhances the words that are meant to convey an overall message. Perhaps the changing of individual words may impact the strength of the message, but not the message itself. Ultimately, whether one is better than the other is irrelevant to me, as the music ultimately enhances the words and vice versa to create an overall quality piece of music.

  2. Sara Tener says:

    There are certain scenes that stick in my head everytime I hear a song play. Ususally, these are scenes where the music intentionally provides a jarring contrast. I am thinking of the Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs and Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” in an episode of X-Files, called “Home.” For me, the violent images and the lighthearted music merge into one entity here, and to divorce one from the other, would be to destroy the impact of the scene entirely.
    There are also certain films where a song becomes intrinsically linked to the plot and hence the film. Here, I am thinking of Groundhog’s Day and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me.” In these cases, the music compliments the story in some emotional way.
    In other words, what I am advocating is for us to be more attentive to how music enhances or hinder the effect of a scene or film. I do not think that we should simply write off music as a filmic cop out. On a final note, there is a film out right now called A Late Quartet that adapts/ is inspired by Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor. It might be of interest for us to view this film and consider how music can be very much part of some films and not something to be considered seperate from them.

  3. Laura Callei says:

    Amelia- I love the points you have made here especially when you stated: “This has always been my pet peeve, although I haven’t convinced myself of its justification. I certainly do not think that music needs words, I just feel that often the poetry has opportunity to slack off. Think of the mountain of lyrical cliches in love songs, I do not ever expect progress there.”

    I agree with you that music doesn’t necessarily need words but I do think that it is in the power of artistic expression that the deepest emotions are evoked. Even if it’s a second of a beautiful violin or a guitar it still evokes something within us that, sometimes, we can’t explain. It is interesting that Linda compares the impact of certain words in the two different pieces she mentioned. It certainly makes you wonder about a slight shift of words that could make something more or less empowering.

    On a side note: Sara- I am so excited you mentioned the X-Files. One of my all time favorite shows!

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